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UC San Diego Opens Center Devoted To Studying Imagination

May 22, 2013 1:19 p.m.

Guests

Seth Lerer, Dean, Arts and Humanities at UC San Diego

Kim Stanley Robinson, Science Fiction Author

Related Story: UC San Diego Opens Center Devoted To Studying Imagination

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

FUDGE: Good afternoon, I'm Tom Fudge. Among the things that make us human, such clever animals, is our ability to imagine the future. UC San Diego has created an innovative program called the Arthur C. Clarke foundation for the future. A space odyssey is an apt symbol for the center's activities this week. It's sponsoring a conference called the starship country symposium. Joining me to talk about it is Seth Lerer, dean of arts and humanities in UC San Diego.

LERER: Thanks, great to be here.

FUDGE: And joining us is Kim Stanley Robinson, the science fiction author who is taking part in that symposium. Thank you very much.

ROBINSON: Thank you, Tom.

FUDGE: Let's talk about the human imagination center. Where did that idea come from?

LERER: Well, what happened was a few years ago, the Arthur C. Clarke foundation sent out a public request for proposals from American Universities to pattern with them to a center for the human imagination. And UCSD has always been about the relationship between technology, science, and the arts. So Sheldon Brown, a professor of visual arts, together with my group of arts and humanities, and many people who had been involved in science fiction at UCSD put together a proposal and worked over several years. And we now have the center for the human imagination partnering with the Arthur C. Clarke foundation. And it's a unique opportunity to bring a lot of disparate things together on the campus.

FUDGE: Clarke is considered one of the most inspiring science fiction writers. What is his legacy to you?

LERER: A lot of people of my generation became interested not just in science and technology but in the world at large through the work of Arthur C. Clarke. And Clarke really distinguished himself in several areas. Most people know him as a science fiction writer and futurist. But he was also an extremely distinguished satellite technologist. He came up with and helped promulgate the idea of geosynchronous satellites. And he was very much involved in the idea of creating a global communication world. So Clarke's legacy is very, very complicated and has a great impact on many, many areas for us.

FUDGE: If you had to spell it out concisely, what would you say is the mission of your center?

LERER: The mission of the Clarke Center is going to be to bring together a whole variety of areas to explore just what it means to imagine. Upon and in a nutshell, speculative fiction, science fiction, brain and behavior studies, cognitive studies, the nature of technology in the visual arts, are the nature of communication, all of these different areas will come together to help us understand how we think, how we communicate those thoughts, and what we do to change the world through our imagination.

FUDGE: Well, Kim Stanley Robinson, I think Jules Vernr once said before you can create new technology, somebody has to imagine it. This center is involved with lots of well-known science fiction writers like yourself. How does science fiction fit into this endeavor?

ROBINSON: Well, almost every scientist read science fiction when they were young and got inspired. And most working science fiction writers read a lot of scientific reports to get inspiration for their stories. So there's a feedback loop going on that is like a commentary orbit where science fiction writers can almost instantaneously take scientific work and turn it into stories and extrapolate. Then young scientist, it might take decades for them to work out ideas that they were inspired by by science fiction. So the two have been going together now for every 100 years and helping to inspire each other. It's a very fruitful feedback loop. And UCSD has amongst its graduates about a dozen to 15 or even 20 working science fiction and fantasy writers, very distinguished list. And there's no other university on earth that has the same record of alumni achievement in these fields.

FUDGE: David Bryn is another person involved with the symposium.

ROBINSON: Also Vernor Vinge, Gregory Benford, Amy Bender, the list goes on.

FUDGE: Stan, you've written quite a bit about Mars. How does your imagination come together with the possibilities of science when it comes to that subject?

ROBINSON: Well, when the Viking lander landed on Mars, we suddenly knew millions of times more about that planet that we had before. And what we found is that there's a lot of water there, there once was an atmosphere there and running water on the surface. And the scientific community began to talk about terra forming at the time because Mars makes the perfect candidate for terra forming. When you bring in these issues of humans altering a planetary landscape to make it more liveable, it's very applicable to earth's own situation right now. Because climate change is a form of terraforming that we've started accidentally and are going to have to deal with. The idea of Mars is something that sits out there for the future, but it's also a way of organizing our thinking for what we're doing right now on earth.

FUDGE: Absolutely. You imagine earth colonizing Mars. Do you really think that's something that is going to happen during our lifetimes?

ROBINSON: Well, we could if we wanted to. It's really more of a political and financial decision than a technical problem. It sits there as a possibility. And I think we will in our lifetimes see basically the beginning scientific stations like you see on Antarctica. So we'll see scientists living there, studying it, coming back home. It's not a matter. These one-way trips that are currently being discussed where people never come back. I think it's more a matter of conventional science where people aren't in essence exiling themselves or throwing their lives away, but just doing really interesting and useful and scientific research.

FUDGE: Tell us more about the symposium, Seth.

LERER: It's a remarkable collection of people. Some of the leading figures in the scientific community will be there. And I think the whole question really is for the starship century not simply the fantasy of whether we're going to go to the stars, but what does the narrative of space travel have to do with our life here on earth? And also how can we see the text 33 years as a keypoint in changing our relationship with the cosmos? I say 33 years because we like to think that the time between 2001 and 1968, when the movie 2001 appeared, we'd like to take that third of a century and project out what the next third of a century is going to be.

FUDGE: Stan Robinson, what do you think space travel does to change our narrative on earth?

ROBINSON: Well, for one thing, space science is always an inner science. And what we learn in the solar system and immediately useful for us understanding this planet and how it works. So we study other planet, we get comparative planetology, and it's extremely useful. And it also just gives us an idea of where we are in the cosmos. Despite my science fiction work in general, I'm most interested in what's going on here on earth right now. But that interest is what leads me to thinking about the rest of the solar system.

FUDGE: Like most people listening, I grew up with star trek wondering when we will go where no man has gone before. And is that science fantasy?

ROBINSON: Star trek is a way of modeling the global community and how we treat each other. Science fiction always has this double aspect. On the one hand, it's about what might be possible hundreds of years in the future, and it's always good to take the long view because we are a species that if we do things right, we'll be around for hundreds of thousands of years, and we have to take the long view to figure out what to do now. But also science fiction is just a way of talking about right now in metaphorical terms and symbols that we can use to simplify certain issues and see them clearer. Star trek was always about us and getting along together.

FUDGE: Is this symposium about traveling to the stars, taking that as a serious subject?

ROBINSON: I think certain talks are definitely about that. If I were there in person, I would be saying let's focus on the solar system as being our immediate neighborhood and I would be making the argument that the stars are too far away. That this is a fantasy. And although we might be able to pull together the rocket ships to get there, I don't think the humans inside the rocket ship would stay sane. So I'm completely dubious about the star, personally. And possibly it's best is that I'm not there today and yesterday in order to -- muddying the waters with my skepticism on that particular subject. But it's always worthwhile to bring these things up anyway just to clarify where we are, what's possible, what's impossible. And this story that we tell about going to the stars is really ignoring the distances involved, which are too big. The stars are too far away.

FUDGE: It sounds like you're disappointed by the progress that NASA is making in this realm and the amount of money they're spending.

ROBINSON: I'd love to see more money spent by NASA. I love NASA. I'm not disappointed in NASA. I'm a big supporter. It's Congress and the American people, how much money they give to it, it's about $20 million a year. And our military budget is more than twice as much as all the rest of the countries on earth combined at about $800 billion a year. I'd be perfectly happy to see those numbers reversed, and then we would have a much more robust space program, and we'd be knowing more with earth and how to take care of our home.

FUDGE: Seth, is there anything you'd like to say in response?

LERER: I think Stan is one of our great commentators on the social world. And what I agree completely with is that modern science fiction is as much about ourselves as about others. And so much of science fiction is a way of talking about the way in which we get along or do not get along with everyone else. But the thing I want to stress is that it is through the speculation, it is through the imagination of things that may even be impossible that we can eventually find solutions to the possible. So whether or not we make it to the stars, I'm happy to think about it.

FUDGE: Can you talk more about how the imagination may solve some other problems we're looking at on earth?

LERER: I think the issues we're looking at are issues of sustainability, of a growing global population, issues of nutrition delivery, but also the way in which we at UCSD are creating partnerships to create new ways of understanding the human body. One of the things that the center is doing is working with neuroscientists. If you like star trek type systems of sensors, how can we find noninvasive ways of monitoring the human body? How can we help with pre and neonatal health? These are the kinds of real-world issues that speculative science and speculative fiction are going to help us to solve.

FUDGE: What about global warming?

ROBINSON: Well, we have to deal with it. It's come, it's already begun, and it will be a matter of rapidly determinizing our energy and transport systems. And that is an imaginative act. The technical components are already invented, but we need to figure out how to pay ourselves to do it. So there's a certain imagination that needs to be applied to our economic and political systems. And I have to say UCSD was so impressive. I went down there to help out when the Clark visitors were deciding which university to choose, and I watched the neurosciences, the cognitive sciences, the visual arts, and the literature department make their presentations to the Clark foundation, and I would certain that UCSD would win after I saw it. The intellectual firepower there in La Jolla at UCSD is really awesome. And the neurosciences, the things that they're studying inside the brain are really -- well, they were science fiction just five years ago, and now they're science fact. And the amount of good health results that we're going to get in sort of solving Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, and the work being done in UCSD is something to really be proud of.

FUDGE: And I suppose Seth would say that's why UCSD got the Arthur K. Clark center for human imagination. Is this going to be research in the short-term or do you see this center going on for a long time?

LERER: I think the short-term implications are going to build new communities on campus, to have an impact on graduate and undergraduate teaching, and to partner with some of the most inventive technologies that are in La Jolla and San Diego in general. I think the long-term implications really are to make UCSD the strategic leader in literary, cultural, artistic, and technological imagination. So I see this really as a catalyst for doing the things that UCSD has really been doing for the last 50 years. Now profiling it and being a conduit for a lot of support from corporate and private philanthropy.

FUDGE: Seth, is imagination what makes us human beings?

LERER: Well, I began my life as a reader. I'm a scholar of literature. I'm a writer. I'm a teacher. And I would like to believe that one of the things that makes us human is our ability to imagine things that are not there. It's one thing to imagine a place you've been. It's one thing to remember, it's one thing to project. It's another thing to conceive of a place that doesn't exist. And I would like to believe that that's the excitement of being a human being. That's my excitement of being a teacher.

FUDGE: What do you think, Stan? Is imagination what makes us what we are?

ROBINSON: Yes, we have in our brains the parts that run our bodies, you could say the lizard parts and then the mammal parts, and then the newest and latest part of the brain, the prefrontal lobes that only human beings have that grew so sharply in the last half million years and made us humans, that's where imagination takes place, that's why technology, invention of technology -- because we really are kind of weak creatures as physical mammals. It's really our teak work and our technology that has made us dominant on the planet. So that comes down to imagining it. And it's so that we have to go through training to turn our imaginations off and do a meditative thing to be in the present.

FUDGE: Being realistic.

ROBINSON: Just being in the present and in the moment and paying attention to what's right around you, that's very valuable and necessary also. So you could say that we are so imaginative that we need to practice staying in the present. But that means that imagination needs to be studied formally, in both scientific and literary ways. And it's lovely that Clark is being remembered like this. He was the most often mystic of British science fiction writers. And he really reminds people that there can be a better world if we work toward it. So to have him be remembered in this way is a beautiful thing.

FUDGE: The starship century symposium, looking at the future of traveling maybe even to the stars.